“It Feels Better Biting Down”

Texas

It was late September, and my wife and I were heading to Houston to receive her perennial treatment. Not days ago, the Houston Medical Center had done some work in proving the mutation of the coronavirus to be much more contagious. But you did not get any of that from the behaviors on sight.

We drove into the parking garage of the University of Texas Professional Building. Rain had been peppering the Houston area since what felt like forever. The previous night, we checked the news on the hotel television for Tropical Storm Beta, one of a series of storms that seemed to enter the moment the previous one let out.

There seems to be some notion by those who do not live on the coast that, because a hurricane is bigger than a thunder storm, the latter is not worth scrutiny. Unfortunately, the behavior of a storm turns out to be much more important than the severity. Will the storm sit still, or will it blow through? The answer to that question haunts the minds of Houstonians, and it is one that is difficult to answer until the moment it hits.

But luckily for us, as my wife received her treatment, we were well cared for in the arms of our routine nurse. As usual, the two debated what arm was used to draw blood the previous time. The prick of the needle never went away from its initial severity, the blood oozing from the vein and dripping like strawberries on the vanilla tiled floor. Before and after the needle insertion, I spent time catching up with our nurse.

When I asked how her son was, she responded that he was back in school. At seven years old, he was getting anxious, even going so far as asking for a knife for Christmas this year, which was startling to the mother. She eventually put her son back into American football, playing for the Colts in a little league, much like I had when I was his age.

“I had to choose between his health and his sanity,” she said, as we finished up the blood draw.

Never mind that, as far back as 2009, we have definitive proof of the dangers of football. Doubling down on the pastime during a pandemic was enough to make my wife and I sit in shock for the hours it would take for her blood to be mixed with dexamethasone. I had just read, in a Harper’s issue for October, about the tumultuous rise and fall once again of the XFL in 2020. For a long time, playing American football has required a suspension of disbelief. That the sport bargained in pain was not new in its history, but that it could have latent effects not seen until in old age was terrifying. What sport was worth the punishment?

And now this?

The sport of football is a veritable disaster for respiratory infections. Linemen collide and breathe on each other with every snap, which occurs approximately every 80 seconds.

But it was late September, and the cases in Texas at that time had been conspicuously low. And this was despite students going back to in-person learning across the state. This was despite the packed restaurants on Magnolia street, here in Fort Worth. Picking up a pizza one early October night, I noticed that it also happened to be the first weekend of cool, crisp weather. In the North part of Texas, we get maybe five weekends of these, before the green trees turn straight to brown, and we experience an ugly, dry, and windy winter. Each restaurant was packed. Masks did not permeate the crowds. Far from it. Masks and non-masks were about 50%.

Each day, I continued to check the amount of cases, not just in Texas, but everywhere. It was the first thing I would do each morning. And seeing the cases linger at a low register, I’ll admit I was shocked. What it did was allow a state, which was looking for every reason to forego sanity, so that it might have a waffle at a cafĂ©, or continue the long tradition of Friday Night Lights. After Donald Trump’s bout with the coronavirus had subsided, and he was back out there spouting nonsense (and shedding the virus), I noticed a particularly cavalier amount of behavior as I drove my wife to her Pilates session. Masks were non-existent. In fact, my wife’s instructor had to let one of her employees go, one who was in direct opposition to mask wearing. This is a Pilates instructor.

It is Okay to Be Scared Again

As of writing this, it is October 17th. Last night I checked the markers of coronavirus for Europe. In the past week, due to either changing weather conditions, or a mutated virus, or pandemic exhaustion, cases throughout the continent have skyrocketed. I noticed that Italy had 8,500 cases in a single day. That is the largest amount…ever. Even in March, when the eyes of the world were upon the country as it became the epicenter of the virus, the largest it had seen was 6,500, a full 2,000 less.

The reason I am keeping an eye on Europe happens to be the same reason I did in the spring. It seems to be that what happens to Europe eventually comes to the United States. What scares me is that Europe as a whole has stomached the virus in a much better and more directed way. Take the recent research on excess deaths. At 206,000 excess deaths in 21 industrialized nations from January to late May, The United States has had 266,000 alone. In my home state of Texas, we have some 6,000 extra deaths (17,000 to 23,000) unaccounted for in the statistics. This is a staggering disparity, (2nd in the country) one that hardly comes up in discussions about schools, churches, activities, or businesses. I do not believe in ghosts, but this invisible trail behind the coronavirus is as close as I can see to a haunting.

And while I checked Europe’s trajectory, I also checked our own. At 70,000 cases in one day, we are barely under the highest count of cases in the history of the virus, which occurred on July 16th and featured 75,000 cases.

We are back.

And I am sitting here trying to be articulate about the way I feel because it feels like the slight storm before the bigger storm. It never felt calm in the United States. Not since March. We continue to look on as others go to restaurants. We continue to read our books, watch documentaries, complete workouts to keep busy, take pictures to remind ourselves to take an account of the time.

In early October, I got the first haircut that I had gotten since early March. It was the closest I had been to a person. Adam, my barber, did a fantastic job, and we talked about a similar passion: space. It was the most intimate experience I had had with someone besides my wife since the pandemic, and as he washed my hair, what I really wanted to do was hug him. I was in such awe at his intelligence and his articulate descriptions. And since it was just me and my wife in the place, and since we all had masks, it felt like the best conditions that we could have possibly gotten our hair cut. Even now I am getting emotional describing what was so commonplace at the beginning of just this year.

And soon it will be gone.

Any hope of contact tracing in the United States has been lost for some time now. The inveigling of the virus into every urban and rural area, combined with an asymptomatic spread which is rumored to be ten times the registered count, means that it is everywhere. Risk of infection has been externalized to its citizens, who must decide for themselves whether to brave a haircut in the next wave. Some people, who work in the service industry, will be unable to choose.

I have come to the conclusion, in this past week where we seem to have hit another inflection point, that it is okay to be scared.

What the fear is is not so much the virus itself, but what it brings with it, namely the loss of social cohesion, the doubling down of some of my Texas citizens into continuing the virus’s circulation, of widening the gap between deaths and excess deaths, of prolonging a teacher shortage, of failing museums and performances, of stymying a return of ballet, my particularly treasured art form. We created a binary decision, like my wife’s nurse in Houston, between health and sanity, and that is the misnomer. We cannot simultaneously do the work of society while a pandemic rages. One must come before the other.

But for Americans, we seem so capable of denial that I think often of the lyric from Lorde’s song. “It feels better biting down.” The song has a ritualistic feel, in order to hallucinate those who hear it to forsake all logic. Rather than practice the obvious in what is called the “Swiss Cheese Model,” we chose instead to play football. Bars decided to charge $5.00 for a small bag of chips, and claimed it served food, in order to remain open. Schools decided to take students out of classrooms and move them around every 14 minutes in order to circumvent the 15 minute rule of infection within six feet. This level of bureaucratic nightmare must have Franz Kafka rolling in his grave.

It is okay to be frightened on the ignorant’s behalf. For every son or daughter worried about the virus here in the States, there is their mother or father, who happens to be not only unconvinced of what is required to fight the virus, but their very age and health makes them the most vulnerable.

For every young person who is worried about spread, there is the young person who knows that the concept of Y.O.L.O is as real as they want it to be. Parties on college campuses are spreading the virus, and as holiday gatherings brings the virus to older members of the family, it will be hard to ignore the social commitments that our species was designed to uphold.

Much like those tropical storms I mentioned earlier, the virus is more terrifying for its relative safety. To draw a comparison, Ebola virus is the true hurricane here. It kills wretchedly, but its behavior is less worrisome. The virus does not spread unless the victim is supine, near death, and as such is far less likely to spread anything. This COVID-19 is the tropical storm. It lingers, and spreads so invisibly and effectively, even by those who show no signs. It has easily flooded our species, and is likely to do so again.

It is okay to be scared, in the same way that a comedy movie has the actor squint before getting hit in the face. We know as Americans that it will be painful. What will be the difficult part will be convincing others of how painful it actually is. America has a rich history of freedom at every cost, as we tried to build a city upon a hill, forsaking Europe and settling in a New World, attempting that line from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

We’ll see which wins out.

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